Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Review & other notes: "Killer Stuff and Tons of Money"

I recently finished Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: An Insider's Look at the World of Flea Markets, Antiques, and Collecting by Maureen Stanton.

It's an enjoyable read about the life of New Englander "Curt Avery" (a pseudonym) and his dogged work as a buyer and seller at antique shows and flea markets, including Brimfield.

I gave it 3.75 stars (out of 5) in my Goodreads review, because I'm allowed to grade on quarter stars, if I want to.

Here's my review, followed by some additional notes:
I enjoyed this book, and you will, too, if you're interested in its primary topic of the world of higher-end flea markets and antique shows. There's an abundance of great detail about buying, selling, haggling, finding hidden gems, making mistakes, detecting fakes, navigating auctions, surviving the crushing schedule of a dealer's life on a road, and figuring out what to do when your house, garage and vehicle become filled with antiques.

I think there could have been a great book about just that aforementioned world, but Stanton tries to delve into a lot other topics, too. To me, that's to the detriment of the main narrative and the book's overall achievement.

The primary portion of the book is a "road trip" non-fiction narrative into the world of these antique shows, with the author's focus on protagonist Curt Avery (a pseudonym). Stanton is fully part of this action, inserting herself into Avery's world as his assistant and sometimes understudy. This is the best part of the book.

But there are also a number of side chapters away from the main narrative, on topics such as eBay; humans' general urge to collect, throughout history; antique repair, restoration and fakery; PBS' Antiques Roadshow; and, most irritatingly to me, a segment on comics, toys and modern collectibles toward that end of the book that really crushes the momentum. That last segment is too shallow to offer insight for comic book and toy collectors and too long, in my mind, to interest readers who would prefer to know more about bottles and redware and blanket chests and the traditional antiques that are the soul of the book.

The book comes close to going all in on "Curt Avery," which I think would have made for an incredibly compelling story. The biographical sections, the sections about his overcrowded house, the sections about his buying and selling philosophy, the sections about his desire to make it to the "next level" of antique dealing ... these are all gold. He's the star of the book, and Stanton gives us a much great detail, thanks to so many years of access. I think that could have been the whole book, with just a few sidebars more closely related to Avery's work. He certainly bares his soul in lot of ways, but I wish Stanton had gone even deeper with her look at his life. A reason she doesn't is probably the same reason she granted him — and, disturbingly, so many other real people in the book — a pseudonym. Stanton explains the reasons for the anonymity, but it seems a weak defense to me.

The only other issue I had with the book are the occasional two- or three-page tangents on the history of a particular kind of object or type of collecting. They have the dry feel of encyclopedia entries and are not at all in keeping with the rest of the book's lively writing style. I found myself speed-reading some of them.

I'm sorry about the editor side of me making this such a critical review. It's just shy of a four-star book, and I do give it a full recommendation if you're interested in the topic. I just think it could have been something even greater. (And, yes, I suspect and understand that some of the content and structural decisions were almost certainly made to give the book the wider general appeal that frustrated me in spots.)
Other notes
  • I was surprised to find that a considerable segment of the book was about an antiques show here in York, just a few miles from my house. Avery sets up a booth at the York Fairgrounds during the first year of the merger between Jim Burk's Greater York Antiques Show and Barry Cohen's York Country Classic. We also get this amusing breakfast moment:
    "Avery digs into his scrapple, a local specialty made from leftover pig parts, the offal, head, heart, liver, and other scraps mixed with cornmeal and herbs, formed into a loaf, sliced, and fried. He wants to buy a loaf to take home."
  • There are also a couple of mentions of frakturs, Pennsylvania Dutch folk art pieces that can be very valuable, if you happen to spot one in the wild.
  • If you're seeking a good bibliography on the topics of antiques and collecting, Stanton gives you a terrific start, listing well over 150 volumes. And I get the impression she read them all during the course of researching and writing this book. There are also nearly 30 pages of exhaustive notes and citations at the end of the book.
  • This book made me want to go picking, but I also realize now that I would never want to wade into a the sea of humanity at an event like Brimfield. I prefer quieter hunts.

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